BAY DELTA SCIENCE CONFERENCE: Lost in translation: The art of interpreting complex science for policymakers
Effectively communicating complex science to policy- and decision-makers is critical for managing the Delta, but the science needs to be useful as well as usable. The State of Bay-Delta Science (SBDS) is a synthesis of current scientific understanding of the Bay-Delta; it brings together progress on key research questions, identifies knowledge gaps, and explores policy implications of current science and ways to improve the delivery of science for management. In order to further distill the information to managers, a summary for policymakers further distills and translates key science topics, with a focus on why these topics matter.
At the Bay Delta Science Conference, scientists came together with policy makers in this session moderated by Randy Fiorini, chair of the Delta Stewardship Council.
“Today we are going to provide you, the listening audience, with an overview and discussion about five of the 2016 chapters,” said Randy Fiorini. “The topics today include Delta smelt, contaminants, Delta levees, predation, and landscape ecology. In keeping with the theme of this conference, Data and Decisions, we are going to personify data and decisions for you. For each of the five topics, we will observe a discussion between a chapter author (data) and a policymaker (decision) who must deal with decisions related to the author’s chapter.”
DISCUSSION 1: DELTA SMELT
- DR. JAMES HOBBS: Dr. James Hobbs is a professional research scientist and lecturer in the Department of Wildlife Fish and Conservation Biology at UC Davis. Dr. Hobbs earned a bachelor of arts in marine biology from Sonoma State University and a PhD in conservation biology at UC Berkeley. His research focuses on addressing important fisheries resource management questions in estuarine and marine environments in California, Oregon, and Washington and Idaho. Dr. Hobbs specialties are otolith microstructure and geochemistry. Dr. Hobbs is co-author on the chapter of Delta smelt which was published in July.
- PAUL SOUZA: Paul Souza is the new regional director for the Pacific Southwest region of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Mr. Souza earned a bachelors degree in environmental studies from the University of California in Santa Barbara, and a masters degree in urban and regional planning from Florida State University. Mr. Souza joined the Service in 1997 as a presidential management fellow. He served as the Service’s assistant director for science applications for nearly two years and was field supervisor for the South Florida ecological services offices where he led actions to recover 67 listed species and protect a host of important habitats for migratory birds, fish, and other wildlife.
To kick off the discussion, Dr. Hobbs summarized the chapter and its findings.
The charge was to review the state of science on Delta smelt since 2008, so the chapter is a synthesis of the research that’s been done since 2008. “This is one of the most studied species probably on the west Coast, and Dr. Ted Sommer puts it nicely that the Delta smelt is the most well studied and most famous species not called salmon on the west coast,” he said.
The conclusions were:
The Delta smelt is adapted to an ecosystem that no longer exists. “Looking at the Delta smelt’s life history, their adaptations, their tolerances to different environmental conditions, and looking at the landscape of the Delta, that the state that the estuary is in now basically does not favor the continued existence of the species. Looking at its physiology or biology, it’s no longer adapted to this particular ecosystem, as we’ve progressively changed things through time.”
There is no smoking gun. The proximate causes of the decline are interactions among multiple factors that have altered their habitat, making it increasingly unsuitable. “Looking at all the drivers that are associated with their population status, it doesn’t really appear to be a single smoking gun,” said Dr. Hobbs. “In each particular year, that there could be a series of different drivers that creep up that could basically lop off the population at any given time, and every year it could be somewhat different at different spatial and temporal scales, so it makes it really difficult to really point the finger at one particular driver, at least as the way the data was presented and analyzed in different papers.”
The population exhibited some resilience when in 2011, environmental conditions were good and abundance was at near historic levels, but unfortunately the current drought may have eroded such resilience. “In 2011, we saw good flows and cold temperatures, particularly through the summer and fall, and we got a pretty large return in adult abundance that year, so up through that time period, it appears that even though the population abundance was declined, the population still had the capacity to return, so there was still some resilience left in the population,” he said. “With this ongoing drought, we may be getting to the point where the population resilience is now reaching a point where it may not be able to return to previous levels if we give it the right environmental conditions only over a single generation. What’s really important for the species being annual is that it has to have consistent conditions, not for a single year, but for many, many years. We right into 2012, we started the drought, it got warm early, and the population collapsed, so all the gains that we got from one good year of conditions were gone by the next.”
The continued decline of the Delta smelt demonstrates the general failure to manage the Delta for the coequal goals of maintaining a healthy ecosystem while providing a reliable water supply for Californians. Dr. Hobbs noted that this was something that was debated amongst the authors. “When the idea of the coequal goals was brought up, it was a great idea, but if you think about it, it was being implemented at a time when we were already taking close to 90% of the freshwater out of the estuary, so the fish were already well behind the curve,” he said. “We basically came out and said, ‘we’re try to manage coequally,’ and we weren’t really at a 50/50 state at that point. We don’t seem to have the capacity to bring this back to a level where it could be a 50/50 share between water for people and water for fish.”
“We sort of put it in the terms of the coequal goals, but it’s really a failure of all of us, I think,” said Dr. Hobbs. “I take a lot of personal responsibility for the failure because we have a lot of science that takes a long time to get out and communicate to the public and some of that information could really be implemented on a much more rapid scale. I know a lot of other folks I talk to feel sort of responsible too because it’s under their guise to try to manage and protect the species, and we’ve continued to fail. And honesty longfin smelt is right behind them.”
Moderator Randy Fiorini asks Paul Souza, “What did you find usable in this report, which represents the best available science?”
“I think it’s extraordinarily helpful in terms of a synthesis of where we stand with Delta smelt,” Mr. Souza answered. “Clearly we’re in the emergency room. This is a species that has had a precipitous decline, it’s on the brink of extinction, and in situations like this, it becomes extraordinarily challenging.”
“One of the things that I learned from this work is that there is no silver bullet,” Mr. Souza continued. “There are a lot of different activities that must be accomplished, which makes it truthfully more difficult. The more standard situation for very imperiled species is that you have one significant driver that you can address – for example habitat loss for terrestrial species.”
“The Delta smelt, clearly as described in that paper, is among the most imperiled species in the country,” Mr. Souza said. “I think it’s important to also understand that it has as much political attention as arguably any species in the country as well. The situation is truly an interesting one from a conservation perspective. We have a very small fish that’s had a dramatic decline that is in the heart of the water supply for the biggest state in the union, and also provides water obviously for agriculture which is among the most productive in the world. So with that, and all of the development pressures that we’ve seen, we have this unique complex situation to deal with.”
“Going back to the real challenges that the paper describes, we have to figure out how to make incremental progress in the face of uncertainty, and the Delta smelt resiliency strategy is something I’m very excited about,” Mr. Souza said. “I want to give kudos to the State of California for the leadership they’ve provided. It outlines 13 different activities that we think could be helpful in that regard. So truthfully, I’d love to hear from you, Jim, among those 13 activities, which would you prioritize, and why, and which do you think are going to be most promising to help the species get in a better condition?”
“I think the number one thing that we should do is to address the outflow issue,” responded Dr. Hobbs. “We need to think hard about what kind of outflow, when, where, and what kind of intensity. The work that was done by Ted Sommer this summer, collaborating with some of the ag folks and getting water down the Toe Drain of the Yolo Bypass was the lowest hanging fruit. Very little water was needed to necessarily get that productivity moving from the Toe Drain into the North Delta arc area. I think that’s the place we should start, considering the state of affairs with the amount of water we have.”
“We’re probably going to have a little bit of water to do summer flow pulses or fall flow pulses so we need to think really strategically about where we put that water, rather than just putting it down the middle of the Sacramento River where 200,000 acre-feet will hardly be even measurable,” said Dr. Hobbs. “If we put this in novel places, we might be able to create the habitat conditions that will be supportive of the species.”
“Coming back to the Yolo Bypass issue, some of the work we’ve been doing recently is that there are a large number of Delta smelt actually residing in the Toe Drain area for a long period of time, and some even staying over the summer and becoming full freshwater resident fish living in that habitat, so that region is clearly one of the most important areas for smelt right now,” said Dr. Hobbs. “We do have the capabilities of providing what water we can provide in that particular habitat, so that’s where I would start.”
“Of the 13 provisions in that Delta smelt resiliency strategy, the one that’s probably going to be the most challenging, the most costly, and the most controversial would be the outflow test of 250,000 acre-feet of water,” said Mr. Souza. “We know that water is a precious commodity; there is no free lunch. If that water is acquired for a test, it’s going to come with some tradeoffs.”
“That really is the place that I find fascinating in the work that we do,” said Mr. Souza. “It really is the interface of science and policy. How do you make these choices, and similarly, how do you get meaningful results from these 13 different tests that are going to allow us to get better? That is really all that we can ask of ourselves is try to get a little better and to try to make some incremental progress in the face of these extraordinary challenges.”
“I’d love to get your thoughts, Jim, about how we actually measure success,” said Mr. Souza. “These 13 actions I think are all important and I’d love to see them all done as fast as possible. Clearly some are easier than others, some more costly than others, but one of the things that I’m already seeing as a significant challenge is how do we know if they are making a difference? When you have a species that is in such a precarious position that’s so hard to find, how can you craft goals and objectives at the population level that we can then implement these 13 provisions and actually measure whether there’s a biological response that is meaningful and a result of the actual test themselves?”
“I think we have the tools to do that,” said Dr. Hobbs. “We have a strong scientific group of people here who have a diverse set of skills. We have really nice conceptual model and a good synthesis of Delta smelt biology. We could use that framework with those strategies in an adaptive management context and look at each of those things that we’re going to do, and with the scientific community come up with the measurable objectives.”
“In some of those situations, we may not be able to measure the response in Delta smelt themselves, but we could look at the conceptual model and look at different parts of that system for positive results,” said Dr. Hobbs. “For instance, this summer we saw a decent phytoplankton bloom that was associated with water coming down the Toe Drain and some zooplankton production. We are going to have to rely on the fish being able to respond and if they are at such low abundances that we don’t see a population level response in our surveys, maybe we need to be including additional types of monitoring in adaptive scientific field experiments and searches for Delta smelt in these places so that we can do this. The Yolo Bypass is monitored by DWR, but we don’t really have a broader concerted resource to go after doing this on the real time scales that we actually need to do be doing it.”
Moderator Randy Fiorini noted that at the end of the report, the 1995 US Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta native fishes is cited. “I quote, you said, ‘Ultimately the plan was never adopted’ – and keeping in mind that was 20 years ago – ‘because actions to protect Delta smelt trumped actions for all other species under ESA.’ For both of you, what is it that should be done that we have regulatory impediments to employ? What were you referring to in this report?”
“Specifically referring to the recovery plan, there were a series of actions that were discussed, and really none of them were really done,” said Dr. Hobbs. “That was probably because at the same time, the Bay Delta Accord was being put into place to manage flows and to keep the low salinity habitat in the right place in Suisun Bay for a certain amount of time, and that was part of that plan. It wasn’t specifically the main objective and it wasn’t the only thing that was being recommended, but because we were coming together and forming this California and federal coalition to address the issue, I think a lot of effort was put there on that particular issue.”
“Then also managing exports,” he continued. “Between trying to manage X2 at a certain position in the estuary and then trying to minimize exports, we kind of put all our eggs in those baskets, and we didn’t do a lot of the other things that should have been done in terms of increasing outflows, specifically for fish and not just to manage for a particular salinity standard. We also didn’t look at other ideas about restoration and the captive breeding populations. I think the two things that we did have available were already being implemented by other groups and so it sort of just the thing that was done, but it clearly wasn’t enough.”
“I’ll first make the point about recovery plans,” said Mr. Souza. “They do a wonderful job of bringing scientists together, and if they are really strong, they actually bring policy makers together and the regulated community together and identify a blueprint for going forward. What they don’t do is appropriate funding. And so there are lots of plans that have been put together that have never had the capacity to have full implementation; that’s just the reality of conservation wherever we are.”
“There is a real danger in threatened and endangered species conservation and ecosystem management more broadly speaking, when we focus too much on a single species,” he continued. “We in the Fish and Wildlife Service have been criticized in the past for single species management to the detriment of other species. We’re at our best when we’re thinking about the ecosystem and multiple species and trying to find the optimization of habitat conditions for them, not the maximization for any one in particular.”
“We really need to focus on the tone of the conversation and how we talk about Delta smelt, and I would really love to recast this as a conversation about the Bay Delta and a shared vision,” said Mr. Souza. “The best most important conservation successes that I’ve seen in my career are grand compromises where we sit down with the affected community, we have a focused conversation about the needs of agriculture, and municipalities, and wildlife, and their habitats, and we again maximize none of those interests but do our best to optimize all of them.”
“We have to foster a community where we’re all in this together, because we all love the same resource, and it’s extraordinarily precious to all of us,” said Mr. Souza. “Only together are we going to be able to find a path forward where we’re doing the best that we can for this ecosystem, and it needs to move beyond a conversation where people are pitted against wildlife. That is a losing proposition for conservation and I challenge all of us to help be a part of that more positive dialog.”
Question from the audience: “I greatly appreciate your comment that single species management is almost certainly not going to be effective as multispecies ecosystem management, but I think one of the frustrations that we have all experienced in this particular system is that regardless of whether we’re using the science to inform single species management, or using the science to inform multispecies ecosystem management, is that the science is presented and recommendations are made but in fact actions are not taken. Many times the scientific advisory boards or councils or workgroups that advise specific actions and the agencies chose not to do it, so I’d like to you to respond to this relationship between the science and the decision making?”
“My first reaction to it is that science is the foundation of decision making that’s strong for conservation,” responded Mr. Souza. “But in nearly every instance, there are ten policy legal choices that can be made with the same science, and so the real art for a policymaker is figuring out how to use that science in a way that not only is going to address the issue of the moment, but is going to be strategic in helping to facilitate the kind of relationships necessary to do something bigger together in the future than any of us could do alone.”
“Thinking about my time in the Everglades, we had a recovery plan for all 67 species,” continued Mr. Souza. “We did our best to optimize benefits for them, and maximize for none with a special eye on ones that were at the brink of extinction which do require special management. I used to say to my colleagues in the state of Florida, the Corps of Engineers, tribes, and environmental groups, we convinced the Congress to let us proceed with a $30 billion restoration effort over 30 years and we did so because it’s a grand compromise between ecosystem restoration and flood protection. Flood protection is key when it’s as flat as a pancake like it is in South Florida, and also water supply for 8 million people and a growing population, so that’s really the trick. It’s our job to make sure that the decisions we’re making for a single species are seen within the context of a broader strategy for an ecosystem restoration effort.”
DISCUSSION 2: CONTAMINANTS
- Dr. Richard Connon is an assistant adjunct professor and researcher at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. He earned his bachelors of science in applied environmental science from Middlesex University in London and his PhD in ecotoxicology from the University of Reading in Berkshire, UK. Dr. Connon’s research focuses on the assessment of molecular responses to chemicals, their links to higher levels of organization, and how those tools can be used for monitoring aquatic systems. His interest in contaminants is both in terms of human consumption and environmental health. In his work, he uses fish models to understand the mechanisms of action for agricultural and urban contaminants with a particular interest in pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Dr. Connon is the coauthor of the contaminants chapter.
- Adam Laputz is the Assistant Executive Officer for the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. Mr. Laputz earned his bachelors and masters degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Reno, Nevada. He is a licensed professional engineer with over 14 years of experience working in water quality programs. He has been with the state and regional water boards for over 12 years working in surface water permitting, irrigated lands, water recycling, 401 certification, and waste discharge to land programs. Adam manages the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System point source permitting, irrigated lands assessment and planning, and TMDL basic planning sections in the Central Valley Water Board’s Sacramento office.
Dr. Connon began with some slides and a summation of the chapter.
The charge was to review and update the status of contaminants in the Bay Delta, looking at the research that has been conducted over the 10 years since the last State of Bay Delta Science report was published in 2008. They took an approach that looked at the weight of evidence, the number of studies that were conducted on a number of Delta species; they looked at effect based analyses to produce the weight of evidence.
“We looked at a number of different contaminants and contaminants classes and how they have been affecting both vertebrate and invertebrate species in Delta waters,” Dr. Connon said. “On this table is the main summary of the effects that are reported on in this review document. From left to right on the columns, we see an impacts on the left hand side that are more mechanistic, sort of at the cell based response in the organisms, and on the right hand side we see impacts that are directly related to reproduction, behavior, and more towards the population impact side of the evaluation.”
They looked at a number of different contaminants, as well as toxic algae ; they also evaluated studies conducted directly on exposure of fish and aquatic invertebrates to Delta water samples, so there’s a combination of chemicals and water samples itself.
Dr. Connon presented a second slide which looks at chemical examples of what is known about chemicals of concern; in the example on the slide, pyrethroid pesticides are used to describe what we know about contaminants in the Delta. “We selected pyrethroids because we know that they are endocrine disruptors, that it impacts hormone synthesis in fish, and it also is a neurotoxicant.”
“We provide a new analysis in this chapter where we’re looking at the increase use in pyrethroids that were the choice chemical to replace organophosphates that were banned in the mid 90s,” Dr. Connon continued. “With that increase in use, we also did a multi-linear correlation analysis with pyrethroid use and abundance, and this was normalized to the toxicity of 6 different pyrethroids of concern in the Delta and we found a direct correlation with fish abundance, 5 species itself. Now we present this as a weight of evidence along with the effects that we know these pyrethroids actually have on the fish, so it’s not a standalone correlation as such.”
“Later in the chapter, we also include analyses of knowledge that we have gained in water quality contaminants in drinking water, and in fish consumption, and we end the chapter with recommendations for policymakers,” Dr. Connon said.
Moderator Randy Fiorini turns to Adam Laputz, and asks, “Your agency has a great deal of responsibility over water quality. What did you find usable coming out of this report?”
“I believe the entire report was usable for us to a certain extent,” Mr. Laputz said. “The biggest issues that really pop out at me from this report and is what’s really usable is that we’ve been going down a path at the regional boards for many, many years in regulating individual chemicals. We find a problem, we react to it, we set a standard and we do what’s called a total maximum daily load, and we try to solve the problem one by one.”
“This chapter makes me really think about the efficiency of that process, and the question of what’s our long game,” Mr. Laputz continued. “We have a short game and that game is to deal with this one at a time, but I think really what we need to be doing is thinking about how do we institute a process and get the right folks at the table to figure out in the long term, how we manage the use of not only these pesticides that are in our waterways, but also other chemicals of concern.”
Moderator Randy Fiorini recalls how when he first started at the Delta Stewardship Council, two groups came to visit: One was the vector control people from counties in the Delta who said it was really their only tool and they can concerns about West Nile Virus; the other was from a research scientist who had determined that pyrethroids were accumulating in the silt in the American River and determined that the invertebrate aquatic species that fish depend upon for food were getting hammered with a direct link to pyrethroids. “Does that have anything to do with why you selected pyrethroids as your example from the many contaminants, and what do you have to say to the vector control people, and those people who are concerned about the accumulation of pyrethroids and the result on fish?”
Dr. Connon said that was one of a number of reasons. “The main reason is that pyrethroids is something that has been heavily studied worldwide, and very much so here in the Delta,” he said. “We know that they are directly impacting the food web through those invertebrates like the study that you mentioned on the American River. But we also know a lot about the direct impacts on fish, and the fact that the concentration of pyrethroids in Bay Delta waters is at levels that do cause impact on fish as well, so not only are we seeing acute mortality on aquatic invertebrates, but we see hormonal changes in fish.”
As to what to say to vector control people, Dr. Connon said, “It’s not necessarily a process about banning a pesticide or stopping a pesticide from being used; it’s about gaining more knowledge and controlling the way that the pesticides are being used. A lot of the time the applications are using 10 times higher doses than is needed for a similarly efficient control.”
“I’m not aware of the concentrations that are used for vector control, but pyrethroids are used both in agriculture and in urban areas,” he continued. “There is very little control from the urban areas, other than through professional applications. Pyrethroids are used to control termites around home, but you can also buy them off the shelf in major stores as well. So it’s more about controlling and reducing the application.”
“One of my main fears is that pyrethroids are a very impacting chemical, but in banning pesticides, you can also end up with another chemical that we don’t know anything about,” Dr. Connon said. “The whole process of regulations takes up to 20 years in some cases, but you don’t really want to start that off again.”
“[Mr. Laputz], your agency has taken some steps to deal with some of the contaminants that are included in this report,” asked Moderator Randy Fiorini. “What more do you need from [Dr. Connon] to help you do your work?”
“When you start talking about pyrethroids or other contaminants, such as mercury or metals, what the contaminants chapter brought forward was that we look at things in a way that is one at a time, generally speaking, although we do toxicity testing, which tries to get at the multiple influences of a mixture,” said Mr. Laputz. “The report talks about how in the real world, there’s potential for synergistic effects of the mixtures and the idea that we can’t monitor for everything all the time. In this chapter, one of the take home messages is that we don’t’ really know what’s causing some of these effects that are laid out in the chapter, and so what I think what we need is a way to monitor for these things in a cost effective way and to prioritize where we spend our resources.”
“The Delta is big, it’s complex, there’s so many things going on,” said Mr. Laputz. “But I do believe if we have the methods where we can prioritize, we can say okay, we’re seeing effects here. This is a key restoration area, this is a key spot where I think we need to prioritize, then we start talking about … now that we know there’s effects, how do we go from that to how we manage that effect, and so I guess what we need is to develop ability to do that in the real world on the large scale that we have.”
Dr. Connon acknowledged that regulators need to regulate chemical by chemical, rather than mixtures. “We really have two things that we’re dealing with here from a contaminant perspective,” he said. “We do have those chemicals, but we also have a Delta, and so the way that the contaminants are regulated from a toxic ecological perspective needs to be integrated with other perspectives. What we need to be looking at is the effect of the water quality as a whole of the Delta on the organisms that we are concerned about.”
“By conducting effect-based analyses first on water samples, we can then take that into the lab and tease apart what contaminants and stressors that are interacting are actually affecting the organisms directly,” Dr. Connon said. “I think we need to start from the field and take that information into the lab to gain information on the contaminants. Otherwise it’s way too complex because of those interactions.”
DISCUSSION 3: LEVEES
- Dr. Steven Deverel is the principal hydrologist and president of the consulting firm Hydrofocus. Dr. Deverel earned a bachelor of arts in zoology from UC Berkeley, a bachelor of science in agricultural science and management from UC Davis, and his PhD in soil and water science from UC Davis. Dr. Deverel has over 27 years of hydrologic problem solving experience in the western US analyzing groundwater systems, quantifying chemical and physical process in soils and groundwater, and evaluating groundwater and surface water quality. He is a registered professional hydrologist certified by the American Institute of Hydrology, a California licensed professional geologist, and a Texas licensed professional geoscientist. Dr. Deverel is the lead author on the chapter on Delta levees which will be published in December.
- Dustin Jones is a supervising engineer with the planning division of the Delta Stewardship Council. Mr. Jones earned his bachelors of science in civil engineering from CSU Fresno and his master of science in civil engineering from UC Davis. His work at the Stewardship Council focuses on planning for, directing and coordinating the work of a high level interdisciplinary team of engineering specialists, and contract employees in the implementation of policies and strategies for water supply reliability, water quality, flood management, levees, and other infrastructure of the Delta Plan to meet the goals and objectives of the Delta Reform Act of 2009. He has served as the project manager for the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Levee Investment Strategy.
Dr. Deverel began by briefly summarizing the paper.
The chapter addresses the effects of human activities which include farming, flood control, and investments in levees. “We attempted throughout the article to really reappraise those aspects of levees which had been addressed in previous studies, in particular the DRMS with was completed in 2009,” said Dr. Deverel.
The bulk of the paper is dedicated to looking at how levees fail and the threats to levee stability, which are seismic, subsidence, and high water. “Our overall objective is to make recommendations on how to improve our knowledge relative to these threats, how to mitigate them and how they relate to risk in the ecosystem,” said Dr. Deverel.
They also considered risk and the consequences of levee failure. “There’s a lot in the literature that’s been published since the DRMS that we tried to incorporate,” said Dr. Deverel. “We also looked at the ecosystem relative to levees; in particular, we looked at how levees can be used to benefit and create habitat, but also from the standpoint of integration with risk and the probability of levee failure and investments, so how ecosystems might be looked at in a different way. In other words, can we go beyond just levee habitat restoration on levees and consider how levees and levee investments might integrate with the entire ecosystem on a larger scale.”
“The monitoring, mitigation, and data collection part of the paper really got into looking at how we try to mitigate the threats,” continued Dr. Deverel. “There’s some information about halting subsidence and trying to mitigate the effects of subsidence on levees, such as how do we mitigate the seismic threat. Then from a high water standpoint, what do we need to get better equipped for what’s predicted to be higher frequencies of extreme high water events and longer durations.”
Dr. Deverel concluded by saying that the overall objective was the reappraisal and development of key recommendations for further work on the levees to really integrate with the levee investment strategy. “We did take into account the current levee investment process that’s going on within the Delta Stewardship Council to try to incorporate what they are doing and relate that to what’s been done in the past,” he said.
Moderator Randy Fiorini asked Dustin Jones to briefly update the audience on the Delta Levee Investment Strategy and then talk about how the levees report will help him in helping decision makers make some very important decisions on funding levee investments.
Dustin Jones began with the background and the environment they are working with. “In the case at least with risk reduction and some of the other topics in the Delta also, the environment that we’re dealing with is that historically, it’s often been the case that policies and decisions have been made or implemented after something goes wrong,” he said. “If you look at the history of statutes within the water resource code and regulations that are currently in effect, there might have been a significant levee event, a failure such as the 1972 Brannon-Andrus that triggered funding programs; events such as Katrina were a wakeup call for a lot of folks to look at our own system and determine what needs to be done and what policies and decisions need to be made.”
The Delta Levee Investment Strategy is a process currently underway at the Delta Stewardship Council that is looking at the risks in the Delta to state interests, and how can the risks be mitigated. “We have limited resources and a very complex system, so what we’re looking at is how do you use those limited resources in the most efficient way to reduce risk,” said Mr. Jones. “When floods happen in the Delta, it’s often considered as an impact on life and property, but the way the Delta is set up, the levees hold back water 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But it’s not just life and property – it’s also the coequal goals that the Stewardship Council’s been charged with. There are impacts to ecosystems if flooding occurs, there’s a direct impact to water supply if flooding occurs, so there is significant amounts of risk and a lot of items at stake that we need to deal with.”
Mr. Jones said one of the things that jumped out at him from the chapter is the amount of uncertainty with the data that we’re working with. “One of the things that policy makers and decision makers need to realize is how do we be proactive to keep something from going wrong, but deal with the uncertainty of not waiting until we get all the data right and have all the solutions that we need,” he said. “We can’t wait until everything is 100% perfect and we have everything nailed down. We have to move forward with policies and decisions with the best information that we have, understanding the uncertainty.”
Moving forward, how can uncertainty be reduced and where is the most efficient place to put resources and data gathering to reduce uncertainty, Mr. Jones said. “For example, with the seismic risks, trying to determine when the next significant event can occur and if an event does occur, what would the impacts be. A lot of that is based on the unknowns of geologic events and the faults that are out there. When will another event happen? Then the uncertainty of how the Delta levees will react comes with an uncertainty of a lot of the makeup and historical events of what has happened or lack of events happening that have had significant impacts on the Delta or levee failures due to seismic events.”
“So for me, that’s really how this report is useful,” Mr. Jones said. “Moving forward, I think it’s going to guide much further work than just the Delta Levees Investment Strategy that we’re currently involved with. This is going to lead into a lot of scientific suggestions for information gathering as we move forward, not with just the levee investment project, but with risk reduction in general in the Delta.”
Moderator Randy Fiorini asks Mr. Jones what else he needs from Dr. Deverel to help him do his work.
“Get rid of all the uncertainty,” quipped Mr. Jones.
“How can you get rid of all the uncertainty?” Mr. Fiorini asks Dr. Deverel.
“Uncertainty is really a key factor,” said Dr. Deverel. “It’s not so much getting rid of it as quantifying it. One of the themes we tried to portray in the article was we know a lot about seismic effects, but there’s some unknowns that we could incrementally work on to decrease the uncertainty.”
For example, with the seismic example, they tried to update what the DRMS had done using the most recent models and realized that DRMS probably overestimated the seismic effects; then there’s the uncertainty about what is really liquefiable in the Delta, Dr. Deverel said. “We don’t know where that is and how different systems will respond.”
Another part of addressing uncertainty is looking at it from a systems approach – whole islands rather than just sections of islands or particular parts of levees, Dr. Deverel said. “For example, using the existing borehole data, we have all this data that’s been collected as a result of levee improvements; let’s use that to quantify what the extent of the liquefiable foundation materials and the liquefiable levee materials are.”
Another example would be trying to get a common understanding about certain aspects of these threats, Dr. Deverel said. “There’s disagreement in the practitioner and scientific community about where subsidence is occurring and what the geotechnical effects of subsidence are, and one of our suggestions was to get people in the same room and have a skillful discussion, each listening to the other side, and try to get a common understanding about that particular subject in particular, because it is something that keeps coming up and needs to be vetted really in terms about what we understand to be the subsidence effects on levees in the Delta today.”
Question: A member of the audience asked if the idea of having a sacrifice island or tract has been contemplated – an island that deliberately has weaker levees that are breached particularly in a high flood to protect others?
Mr. Jones acknowledged that there have been studies done on whether or not islands should be reclaimed in the Delta, but while they are aware of them, that’s not part of policy recommendations they are currently looking at. “Because of the limited resources again that we have to deal with, it’s really more of a risk analysis and where should funds be prioritized to reduce immediate risks,” he said. “We’re not really considering at this point taking islands or tracts off the table. We haven’t taken on yet the question of what happens if one island fails and what are the potential increases to risks on neighboring islands. That’s a pretty significant effort and we currently don’t have detailed enough information to really make the connections on particular groups of islands or what the impacts would be on the neighboring islands. It may be something that we recommend in future iterations of work.”
DISCUSSION 4: PREDATION
- Dr. Gary Grossman is Professor of Animal Ecology at the University of Georgia. Dr. Grossman earned his bachelors of science from UC Berkeley and his PhD from UC Davis. His primary fields of research are population, community dynamics, and habitat selection in fishes. His expertise in the issue of predation on endangered salmon is based on 20 years of fisheries advisory work in various forms for the state and federal agencies that manage the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. In 2013, Dr. Grossman presented at a public hearing the effects of fish predation on steelhead drought and endangered chinook salmon populations in the Delta, and senior authored the report produced by the technical panel from that hearing. Dr. Grossman is the author of the chapter on predation on fishes, which was published in July.
- Dorene Di’Adamo was appointed to the State Water Resources Control Board by Governor Brown in 2013. Ms. Di’Adamo earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of California at Davis, and a jurisdoctor from the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. She previously served on the California Air Resources Board under the Brown, Schwarzenegger, and Davis administrations where she was instrumental in the Board’s air quality and climate change programs and regulations. Ms. D’Adamo served in various capacities for members of Congress from the San Joaquin Valley, working primarily on agricultural and environmental legislative and regulatory policy. She was appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger and reappointed by Governor Brown to the Board of the California Partnership of the San Joaquin Valley. Ms. D’Adamo was a visiting lecturer for the Department of Politics at California State University, Stanislaus.
Dr. Grossman then quickly reviewed the main points of the chapter on the current status of information on predator-prey relationships in the Delta. He acknowledged that the issue has become a political football, and that he had given testimony in a congressional hearing earlier this year that dealt with two bills that specifically were going to be introduced to fund predator control measures.
The Delta is full of predators, ranging from wading birds to snakes to fish; there is very little information on most of these predators or at least their predatory behavior within the Delta itself. However, since most of them are invasive, we know something about their food habits or predatory behavior from other systems.
Predators are also generalists. “They will eat whatever they encounter and whatever is most abundant with the proviso that most predators to maximize their net energy intake,” Dr. Grossman said. “So for example, they would find a salmon par a better thing to eat then a stickleback that has a bunch of spines.”
There isn’t a lot of good data on what the predators are eating in the Delta, pointed out Dr. Grossman. “The main management point that I wanted to make is the data are insufficient to provide any sort of generalization about whether predator removal as a management strategy would have a positive impact on prey species of concern – things like Delta smelt, salmon, and steelhead,” he said. “However, the generalized nature of predatory behavior of these species suggests that if you remove striped bass, then largemouth bass would just move in and eat the fish that striped bass were previously eating. So it seems highly unlikely that from a management point of view, that a particular single predatory removal strategy would have a positive impact on species of concern.”
“Another thing we don’t know is the geographical nature of predation in the Delta with one exception,” said Dr. Grossman. “In areas where there have been significant structural modifications, especially things that alter natural flow patterns in the Delta, it’s pretty clear that prey get trapped in these areas and that predators may congregate within them and you get as one person termed it, a Clifton Food Court as far as the predators are concerned, so my recommendation is really is that management efforts should be focused on these hot spots, determining the levels of predation within them, and trying to figure out how they can be reengineered to function in a more ecologically sound manner, meaning function more like they did originally before humans went in and altered things. At the same time, those sorts of restoration efforts could be coupled with localized predator control reductions, perhaps at specific times for these species like outmigrations.”
Dr. Grossman’s last point was that communication needs to be improved between scientists and policymakers. “There is a political arena that’s all of everybody, and I can tell you just by my experience in giving expert testimony to Congress that you can lead an elephant to water but you can’t make him drink, so unless we address the political factors as well, it really doesn’t matter if we have the best scientific information, nor if we have the managers and policy makers directly in line with us.”
“To end on a positive note, better communication will help all of us and lead to a quicker restoration of the systems that we want to save,” Dr. Grossman concluded.
Moderator Randy Fiorini noted that as a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, Ms. D’Adamo has the unenviable task of updating the water quality plan in the Delta. “You’re considering the impacts of many stressors on the system as you focus on what you will ultimately be providing as an update. How does Gary’s work help to inform you?”
Ms. D’Adamo began by agreeing with Dr. Grossman that it’s important to recognize the political overtones. “It affects the species, the ecology, the economy, and it affects lives, so it’s really important and of course there’s going to be political overtones to that,” she said.
She acknowledged that before being appointed to the State Water Board, she was working for Congress and would have thought that removing predators would be the easy fix. “Thanks to the Delta Stewardship Council, the Delta Science Program, the workshops and a lot of the work that you’re doing, the science has been communicated to myself and others on the board, our staff and other policy makers.”
Ms. D’Adamo noted that they are updating the water quality control plan for the Bay Delta, something that hasn’t been done in any significant way since 1995. Predation is an issue in the context of improving the environment and the water quality for the species. They are updating the plan in phases; Phase 1 are the objectives for the San Joaquin River and Phase 2 is the Sacramento River and outflow.
“Our staff has elected to focus on what’s called unimpaired flow, increasing flow starting on the San Joaquin and then moving into the Sacramento and the other tributaries,” Ms. D’Adamo said. “That flow centric approach is intended to be the tool to address predation; in other words, if we get increased flow, it can address the predation issue. I have to say that I disagree. I think we can do better, and I don’t know necessarily what the right approach will be in the end, but I think we have to have a much more comprehensive view. There is no silver bullet. We need to be looking at all the stressors and all of the different tools in the tools box.”
“The challenge is that we have the authority on flow and so that is going to be the focus we would be taking at least initially,” Ms. D’Adamo said. “But when I say I think we can do better, the Governor has sent us a letter encouraging us to look at negotiated settlements as more durable solutions, and those negotiated settlements could include a lot of the things that we’re talking about with other stressors. There are limited budgets and limited resources to deal with these issues, but in these negotiated settlements, the public water agencies would be putting up some dollars to address some of these stressors.”
Ms. D’Adamo said that one thing that keeps coming out in the reports is the issue of hot spots and that predation is not random but is occurring in those areas for a reason. “Maybe there’s a bridge here on things that are important to all, and I would call that bridge as habitat,” she said. “What can we do to improve the habitat, whether it’s altering, creating habitat, restoring habitat, or altering some of these physical infrastructures that are out there that may be causing these hotspots.”
Ms. D’Adamo noted that the report identifies a number of hotspots as well as other potential hotspots. “How do we prioritize the actions? How do we obtain the dollars in order to take those actions? And most importantly, for these settlement discussions, if the regulated community is going to be ponying up dollars for habitat and hot spots program, then they are looking for opportunities to maybe reduce the flow that would otherwise be required of them. What can the science community do to help guide us and to quantify those benefits, so that if we do reduce the amount of flow that otherwise would be suggested by our staff, how do we have confidence in going forward that this package is the right approach?”
“I would have to enlist the help of an engineer and hydrologist,” responded Dr. Grossman. “I think Clifton Court is a place to start in terms of impact and then potential benefit, if we could reengineer it in a way. I just don’t know how much is known about the hydrology of those 15 areas that were identified. I think there probably are some that with minimal reengineering would restore natural flow patterns and direction. There are places where flow goes the wrong way, the prey fish get confused and the predators, being smart, are waiting right there for what essentially is a buffet line. There might be some of these hot spots where with minimal money and energy and time, we could return them to natural flows. I guess I can’t give you an answer of whether I could or I couldn’t. Do I believe it’s doable? Yes.”
“This subject drives a lot of questions, very important questions that need usable answers. Unfortunately, we’re out of time,” said Moderator Randy Fiorini.
DISCUSSION 5: LANDSCAPE ECOLOGY
- Dr. Michael Healey is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, a former lead scientist for the CalFed science program, and a member of the Independent Science Board. Dr. Healey received a Bachelors of Science and Master of Science degrees in zoology from the University of British Columbia, and a PhD in natural history from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Dr. Healey has taken a strong interest in how scientific information is used in developing resource management policy. He is recognized internationally as an expert in the ecology of Pacific salmon and an expert in the design of resource management systems. Dr. Healey is a coauthor of the chapter on landscape ecology which was published in July, the synthesis chapter which will be published in December, and the summary for policymakers which in November.
- Petrea Marchand is the president of Consero Solutions and the executive director of the Yolo Habitat Conservancy. Petrea earned a bachelor of arts in English from Pomona College and holds two masters degrees from Duke University, one in public policy and one in environmental management. Her training is in resource economics and water resources management, as well as government administration. She is a graduate of the California Ag Leadership Program. In her role at Consero Solutions, Petrea works to develop local solutions to tough problems and to advocate for these solutions at the state and federal level. Her public policy specialty areas include natural resources, agriculture, transportation, regulatory reform, water supply and quality, and flood management. Prior to her work with Consero, Petrea was the manager of intergovernmental affairs at Yolo County.
Dr. Healey began with a summation of the chapter, noting that it’s a fairly high level overview of the subject of landscape ecology, not a prescriptive chapter a how-to chapter. He referenced the recent report from the San Francisco Estuary Institute, A Delta Renewed, which he said was a much better handbook of how to apply landscape ecology principles to actually doing things in the Delta.
“Landscape ecology really is about sort of larger scale ecological systems that tend to be heterogeneous in nature,” he said. “The Delta is a very patchy landscape. There are all sorts of different kinds of habitats and ecosystems that are bundled together in areas of several acres or multiple acres in size. Landscape ecology is all about how the size, shape, location, and interaction of patches affects the overall functioning of the ecosystem. I’m very hopeful that this subject will become much more integral to the design and management of the Delta, particularly in making determinations about what kinds of habitat modifications to make or an ecological restoration, and how those should be interrelated with the other aspects of the ecosystem around about them.”
Dr. Healey then gave a few basic principles from landscape ecology:
Big patches are different from small patches. “You may have the same kind of habitat, but if it’s a big patch of habitat, it’s going to have different species and behave in a different way than a small patch with the same kind of habitat.”
Elongated or irregularly shaped patches are different than the circular or square patches, particularly with regard to the amount of edge in relation to interior habitat. “Different species like edge or interior habitats, so if you have different shaped patches, they are going to have different patterns of species utilization.”
Isolated patches are different then well connected patches. “In the Delta, there is a lot of variation in the way that patches might interact with one another and how organisms might move from one patch to another, whether it’s easy or hard, and also if there are nearby similar patches, so organisms could hop from place to place, so that the particular patch you’re interested in could really be considered part of a larger patch.”
“Landscape ecology provides a set of tools and concepts to help you look at the Delta from those perspectives and use the understanding of the interrelationships of the patches to help you design and manage for particular species, or particular kinds of ecosystems in the Delta,” Dr. Healey said. “Our purpose in writing the chapter was really to give this kind of introduction. Landscape ecology has come up frequently in my visits down here, but it seemed to me that it wasn’t really being well integrated into the overall management structure for the Delta, so we’re hoping through this chapter and certainly through the excellent work of SFEI, it’s going to become a more prominent part of the overall management structure for the Delta.”
Moderator Randy Fiorini asks Patrea Marchand what her takeaways are from this report. “Does it address your responsibilities and aspirations in Yolo County?”
Ms. Marchand gave her honest thoughts about the paper. “The recommendations are really too broad to be useful for someone at the local level who is implementing habitat conservation and restoration on a regular basis, so Michael and I discussed how we could take this paper one step forward to actually help implement some of my projects in Yolo County,” she said. “I am going to give an example of a particular property that I’m working to conserve right now and he’s going to respond to how these landscape ecology principles can be applied.”
Ms. Marchand first gave some background on the Yolo Habitat Conservancy. “We’re a jurisdiction that’s composed of four cities and a county,” she said. “The board is all made up of elected officials. We’re entirely dependent on willing landowners and state and federal grant funding to do habitat conservation. We’re working on a 50-year habitat conservation plan and natural community conservation plan under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts. We’ll get permits for all the development activities in Yolo County. In return for that, we’re going to be implementing a 50-year conservation strategy. A large part of the efforts to restore riparian habitat are going to be in conjunction with this 50-year plan if we can complete it.”
“We operate on very short timelines,” she continued. “We have to have willing landowners so it means we can’t choose where and when we want to preserve land. Most of that land is going to be agricultural land, so the landowners are going to have a say in what type of restoration or additional enhancements occur on that property, and we’re going to be entirely dependent on state and federal funding to implement that process.”
Ms. Marchand then gave her example. “We are one of the Delta counties so we have a significant portion of the high elevation land in the Delta that is within the county and will be covered by this conservation plan that will ultimately preserve habitat for 12 endangered species,” she said. “So we’re working to preserve right now an 800-acre ranch that’s south of West Sacramento. It’s between Sacramento River and Babel Slough. It’s what they call the ‘ranch that time forgot’. The family has owned it for over 100 years. The landowner who currently owns it has been left property by all of her relatives and she is ready to leave the property. She wants it to stay the way it was when she was a child with all of the different species that are using it as habitat. Swainson’s hawk, western pond turtle, you name it. Very few people have ever seen this property; it’s never been monitored for the species that are on it. It presents a really unique opportunity to preserve some of the last riparian habitat. It’s also surrounded by orchards and vineyards.”
“She is anxious to leave so we have to operate fast,” Ms. Marchand said. “We don’t have a permit yet under our plan. We have to apply for grant funding to preserve the property, and we’re going to be entering into an agreement with this landowner negotiating back and forth on the easement terms and on the management plan, so Dr. Healey is going to provide some advice for me on how I can corporate some of this landscape ecology principles into my transaction.”
“My first reaction is that this sounds like a conservationist’s dream almost,” said Dr. Healey. “It’s a big piece of property; it hasn’t been completely transformed by human activity. Sure, it’s been used as a ranch, but there’s lots of natural habitats there. And you could ask is it better to keep it as all one piece or do several things with this piece of property? But you have to look at exactly where it is in relation to other habitats around it and ask well, what are a reasonable set of goals for this property. As with all management actions, you need to be clear about what your goals are to begin with.”
Dr. Healey noted that there are some constraints. “There are the previous owners who want it to stay as it was when they were a child, so that suggests they want to keep certain things in this piece of property,” he said. “From the way you’ve described it, it sounds as though you could almost leave it the way it is for awhile while you think about what additional things you might do.”
It’s also important how the property relates to the landscape around it, Dr. Healey said. “You mentioned there are orchards and vineyards,” he said. “Do those habitats provide any kind of benefit to the species that are of interest in the piece of property that you’re set to manage? If they do, that’s fine, then you’ve got maybe good connectivity and surrounding habitats that are actually reinforcing and supporting the piece of property you’re particularly interested in.”
“If not, then you can ask if there are similar habitats that aren’t too far away and is there any way we can provide some connectivity to those habitats,” Dr. Healey said. “That would mean talking to the surrounding landowners and discussing with them what you might need in the way of a corridor to connect your piece of property to nearby properties that might provide a useful adjunct or complement to what you have locally and what you’re trying to produce. So it involves a lot of political work, talking to the landowners around and getting them to be sympathetic to what you’re trying to accomplish and perhaps some of them at least willing to work with you to make it overall a better project.”
Dr. Healey said there are two parts he recommends to approaching an opportunity like this. “One is to get a good assessment of the property that you have and its potential and what the constraints might be and what you can do with that piece of property, but also be concerned with what’s round about it and what’s close enough to it that you might make some connectivity and see whether or not you can discuss with adjacent landowners some collaborative relationship that would allow you to enhance the particular piece of property you have to work with.”
Moderator Randy Fiorini notes that Dr. Healey has added the complexity of connectivity to a project that is a massive undertaking by itself. “Do you have any time to think about the planning efforts that this connectivity matter would require, and if so, how are you doing that, and if not, who should be doing that?”
Ms. Marchand said that everything at the local level hinges on funding. “If you don’t have money to implement a recovery plan, you’re not going to do the work,” she said. “The same thing’s true with some of this landscape ecology or connectivity research. We have for our HCP requirement to preserve 32,000 acres over 50 years. It doesn’t say we have to use landscape ecology as a principle. We obviously are going to as part of our conservation plan, but we don’t have a lot of money to do the additional studies or work that would be required for every property to really dive deep into some of those relationships with other properties.”
“It always comes down to money,” continued Ms. Marchand. “I hate to say it, but if money is made available to some of these county-wide plans with the intent of assisting with establishing these connections with neighboring properties and working with local landowners to explore opportunities very carefully, then I think that would be helpful.”
Ms. Marchand said that the work being done by SFEI to develop the data and make it accessible to people at the local level is important, as is the outreach that is necessary from the state agencies and institutes that are collecting this information to go to the local governments who are doing the conservation work. “Too often, people expect the local agencies to come to them and quite often they don’t have the time to dive in-depth into that type of data analysis, so I think it’s important to really facilitate relationships and establish better communication. I think that really comes down to people from universities, people from state agencies, reaching out, going to the counties where these people are working, meeting with them in their offices, presenting the data to them, presenting the tools to them and offering their assistance in any they can as well as resources to help those people use it.”
“I’m glad you mentioned universities at the end, because universities and colleges could be tremendous resource for you to tap into,” said Dr. Healey. “Faculty members may well be very interested in the kind of problem you’re tackling, both from the ecological and from the social anthropology side, so it might well be possible to get faculty members and students, even students in the local high schools, involved in data collection and gathering information. … you could get a kind of crowd of people involved, so you don’t have to expect your organization to do everything. You would still have to manage the process, but you might be able to generate huge resources, both in people and funds from other institutions that would really help you accomplish something.”
Moderator Randy Fiorini said, “We have this chapter in the SBDS that emphasizes vision, modeling, and mapping and we have the SFEI report on A Delta Renewed that does a great job of pictorially describing variations on themes for a future Delta. How should the planning occur to incorporate landscape ecology into the Delta landscape and what help do you need, Petrea?”
“I’ll go back to my theme of starting with outreach to the local agencies,” Ms. Marchand said. “For example, someone very kindly provided me with a hard copy of A Delta Renewed book, and I’m busy rewriting the chapters for the HCP right now, so I wouldn’t have known that it had come out and don’t have time to attend the other elements of this conference as much as I would like to. So I think having some outreach to the local agencies to talk about what information is available and to be able to have a conversation about with a specific focus on properties that we’re looking to acquire or areas that are our conservation priorities. Help up connect some of that information to our individual properties and efforts at the local level.”
“We might be different than other counties because we’re very lucky that we have directed all of our growth to cities so there’s a lot of available land, so that’s not one of our biggest constraints,” Ms. Marchand said. “I want to state that up front that we are unique in the amount of land that’s available for conservation. I would say the biggest obstacle to additional work at the local level really has got to be the expectation that the small amount of people that are involved in conservation in Yolo County are going to come to academics first or they’re going to come to the state agencies and ask for help. I don’t think we always know the help that we need.”
“I think there’s been some really good examples in the Yolo Bypass of the state reaching out to local agencies and elected officials and really trying to bring them along with the process, and I think that outreach is probably the biggest constraint right now to successful habitat restoration at the local level,” Ms. Marchand said.
For more from the Bay Delta Science Conference …
Sign up for daily email service and you’ll never miss a post!
Sign up for daily emails and get all the Notebook's aggregated and original water news content delivered to your email box by 9AM. Breaking news alerts, too. Sign me up!